Brain and Body

Compound in ‘Magic Mushrooms’ May Help the Brain Cope With Social Exclusion

April 20, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

Psilocybe semilanceata mushrooms
Photo credit: Arp/Mushroom Observer (CC BY-SA 3.0). Image has been cropped.

It could be used to treat depression and anxiety.

A new study by researchers from the University of Zurich have found that psilocybin, the chemical compound responsible for the hallucinogenic effects of certain types of mushrooms, may be able to reduce the distress caused by mild social exclusion.

By following how psilocybin affects the brain’s chemistry and the activity levels of certain emotional processing areas within the brain, the researchers found that psilocybin might be a useful new tool for treating many mental disorders that are linked to faulty social processing in the brain.

“Usually, social exclusion and isolation is perceived as extremely stressful and painful,” says Katrin Preller, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Zurich and the first author of a study describing the findings published April 18 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Psilocybin now seems to reduce this emotional response to social exclusion by attenuating activity in associated brain areas,” thus making the experience “less emotionally painful for the participants.”

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For the study, 21 healthy participants were given a small dose of psilocybin and then received brain scans while playing an online game in which they were made to feel socially excluded. Whiles playing the game, those participants who received psilocybin reported feeling less socially excluded compared to those that had received a placebo instead. The brain scans of participants who had taken psilocybin also revealed reduced brain activity in regions normally associated with feelings of social pain.

Previous studies had shown that psilocybin, like other psychedelics such as LSD, can increase a subject’s connectedness towards people and the surrounding environment. In this study, researchers were able to demonstrate in a controlled environment that psilocybin could be stimulating two different receptors in the brain, a process that is normally targeted by the neurotransmitter serotonin.

The researchers believe that the interaction of psilocybin with these two receptors might help the brain to communicate in areas where there isn’t any communication normally, as well as reduce some activity in other parts of the brain where over-activity is occurring due to mental disorders like depression or anxiety.

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Recent research has shown that psilocybin can be extraordinarily effective in treating depression and anxiety in certain patients, so there's reason to believe [the treatment of social exclusion] would also be a potential use,” says George Greer, medical director of the Heffter Research Institute, which helped fund the study. (Greer himself was not involved in the research.)

It’s worth noting that this particular study was carried out under medical supervision and in a controlled environment, and the authors do not advocate taking psilocybin in uncontrolled settings.

With the field of psychedelic drugs being revived around the world, we can be optimistic that some of these substances like psilocybin might soon be used to treat many mental disorders.

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Editor's note (April 20): "Compound in" has been added to the title for clarity.

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